Sunday, 21 September 2014

Gluck and Bertoni: Il Parnaso confuso and Orfeo, Bampton Classical Opera, 16 September 2014

St John’s Smith Square

(sung in English)

Apollo – Aoife O’Sullivan
Melpomene – Gwiawr Edwards
Erato – Anna Starushkeych
Euterpe – Caryl Hughes

Orfeo – Anna Starushkevych
Imeneo – Thomas Herford
Euridice – Aoife O’Sullivan
Friends of Orfeo/Furies/Blessed Spirits – Gwawr Edwards, Caryl Hughes, Thomas Herford, Robert Gildon

Thomas Blunt (conductor).

Jeremy Gray (director, set designs)
Fiona Hodges, Pauline Smith (costumes)
Karen Halliday (movement)

Painting of the premiere of Il Parnaso confuso, attributed to Johann Franz Greipel.
The Archduke Leopold may be seen at the harpsichord in the pit, his sisters on stage.

The response, or rather lack thereof, of London's ‘major’ opera companies to the Gluck anniversary has been nothing short of a disgrace. It would not matter, if they deigned to perform his operas the rest of the time, but they might at least have made token amends this year: instead, absolute silence has reigned, whilst the more artistically pressing business of endless revivals of uninteresting stagings of still more uninteresting works by Verdi and Donizetti has continued apace. After all, a season without a surfeit of Traviatas  is no season at all for some houses; it is as if Gluck’s reforms, let alone Wagner’s, had never happened. Bampton Classical Opera, however, has performed a real service, in mounting the first British staged performances – at least that is the claim, and I have found no evidence to the contrary – of Il Parnaso confuso. Performances, especially in this country, of Gluck’s reform operas are so thin on the ground that it seems an almost indecent luxury to see one of his other works. It should not, however, and such works require no apology, simply a hearty welcome – and of course good performances.

This one-act festa teatrale, here performed in tandem with Bertoni’s Orfeo (on which more anon), was composed to a libretto by Metastasio, for performance at Schönbrunn in 1765. For the marriage of the Archduke Joseph, shortly to be Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, to Maria Josepha of Bavaria, Gluck was commanded to write no fewer than three works, the others being a full-scale opera, Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe, and a pantomime-ballet, Sémiramis. (If we think his operas neglected, just consider the fate of his ballets, with the partial exception of Don Juan.) The concept of Il Parnaso confuso was that it would be a surprise for the wedded couple, performed by four of Joseph’s sisters and directed from the harpsichord by his brother, Leopold. Were this Strauss and Hoffmansthal we should doubtless all be hymning the metatheatricality of a work in which four of the Muses are suddenly called upon by Apollo to provide an entertainment for Joseph and his ‘stella bavaria’ and hasten to do so, only to find out that the wedding has already taken places and that their services are required not very soon but immediately. Indeed, there are more than shades avant la lettre of Ariadne auf Naxos. (Strauss, far from incidentally, was a great devotee of Gluck’s operas.) That the libretto is by Metastasio, and mocks as old-fashioned and merely conventional earlier Gluck works, written for Joseph’s first marriage in 1752, offers irony aplenty, especially when one considers the shortly-to-be-penned Preface to Alceste, in which the Caesarian Court Poet would find the reformist boot very much on the other foot. Both Gluck and Metastasio show a light, even comedic touch that confounds such expectations as we might generally have today.

Performances did this work – perhaps slight, but far from negligible – proud. Thomas Blunt showed a true, and rare, sense of eighteenth-century style, which is certainly not what many people nowadays think it to be. Tempi were well chosen, orchestral colour within its bounds well balanced, and the singers well supported. The musicians of CHROMA are of course equally to be credited; small numbers notwithstanding, the band, placed behind the stage, never sounded meagre, the acoustic of St John’s Smith Square doubtless proving of considerable assistance. Jeremy Gray’s production offered an Alpine Parnassus, replete with Dirndl, Lederhosen, and beer, which allowed the action – and above all, the music – to proceed without unnecessary interference and yet which, at the same time, provided a witty framing for further metatheatrical reflection, should one have wished to indulge. (The question of Gluck and ‘nationality’ is complex and fascinating.) All of the singers had a good deal to offer, Gwawr Edwards being perhaps my pick of the bunch, the surprisingly difficult technical demands – how did the princesses cope with them? – having little fear for her, but never being a mere end in themselves. She and her sisters, played by Anna Starushkeych and Caryl Hughes distinguished well between their respective roles, without attempting unduly anachronistic ‘characterisation’ in the modern sense. Aoife O’Sullivan’s Apollo sounded perhaps a little strained at times, but otherwise impressed.

The passage from opera seria to ‘reformism’ was neither linear nor uniform, as both the ‘reform operas’ and chronology will attest. Il Parnaso confuso was composed after Orfeo, though I should defy anyone to guess so. Moreover, just as Metastasio’s libretti would be set by a multitude of composers – Mozart had at least forty predecessors, Gluck included, when it came to La clemenza di Tito – Gluck was not the only composer for Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Orfeo. Here we heard what was intriguingly billed as the first ‘modern-times’ performance of Ferdinando Bertoni’s 1776 version in the United Kingdom; I can only assume that there must therefore have been an eighteenth-century performance somewhere in this country, and should be grateful for confirmation and details. Doubtless the strangeness would have been greater had we not heard the work in English translation, but even so, it is a slightly odd business hearing a text – even when cut – one knows so well, set to different, yet clearly ‘influenced’ music. The impression is generally of pleasant, perhaps more ‘up-to-date’ music, somewhere between imitation Gluck and Johann Christian Bach, but deeper acquaintance might possibly ascertain greater individuality (or not). It is well-crafted and certainly to be preferred to many of those aforementioned undistinguished nineteenth-century works our houses continue to foist upon us. An exception seemed to be offered by certain odd tonal jumps in the recitatives; without consulting a score, I cannot say whether that was Bertoni’s fault, or a matter of the performing edition. Maybe it would have been too much to hear both Orfeo settings back to back, but it would have been intriguing: an idea for another occasion, perhaps?  

Again, performances were generally impressive. Blunt, clearly a force to be reckoned with, and someone from whom I hope to hear more soon, again led his players in a stylish, committed performance, which enabled parallels with as well as distinctions from Gluck to be drawn. Gray’s modern-dress production again permitted the work to progress without fuss. The lion’s share of the singing is Orfeo’s; here, Anna Starushkeych was a little more variable, perhaps a little tired at times, but nevertheless gave a good sense of what was at stake. Thomas Herford and Aoife O’Sullivan provided very good support, as did the small soloists’ chorus. Charles Burney’s doubts concerning Bertoni’s inventiveness may have been justified, but so, for the most part, was his discernment of a style that was ‘natural, correct, and judicious; often pleasing, and sometimes happy,’ both in work and here in performance.


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